Welcome to the Future

An Introduction to Virtual Reality

Virtual reality, known as VR, simulates the feeling of being present in a computer-generated environment. It is often experienced through a head-mounted display (HMD), a small screen attached to your face with curved eyepieces that magnify the image to fill your field of view, occluding the outside world. Sensors embedded in the device match your head's position and orientation with the character's point-of-view inside the virtual world. While VR was primarily built for video games, it has the potential to dramatically transform many other industries.

VR has a long history, dating all the way back to the 1960s with the Sensorama, the first immersive multi-sensory movie machine. Developed by cinematographer Morton Heilig, the Sensorama looked like an arcade battle station and a photo booth birthed a mechanical baby. It displayed a stereoscopic 3D film of a motorcycle ride through Brooklyn and even simulated wind, smells, and vibrations. Impressive as it was for 1962, Morton couldn't secure enough financing and the technology never took off.

With the advent of personal computers in the 1980s and 90s, virtual simulation replaced physical machines like the Sensorama. Primitive computer graphics cards rendered crude 3D environments displayed on monstrously large and expensive HMDs. But 1990s VR was ahead of its time; both computer hardware and software in those early days were not powerful enough to convincingly simulate digital worlds. Perhaps most importantly, developers never created compelling games or experiences to drive the platform forward. Headsets were too bulky, expensive, and inaccurate, while polygonal 3D games were simply not advanced enough. Systems like Nintendo's Virtual Boy and Philip's Scuba over-promised and under-delivered.

Rift

Why now

For over two decades, VR remained nothing more than a distant pipe dream - an expensive technology limited to high-tech military training and theme parks. But in 2012, the Oculus Rift HMD was announced on Kickstarter, disrupting virtual reality forever and revitalizing the stagnant industry. Created by Palmer Luckey, then a VR enthusiast and engineer at USC's Mixed Reality Lab, the Rift boasted a wide field-of-view and ultra-low latency head tracking to produce an immersive experience unrivaled by any other HMD on the market. Whereas previous HMDs cost thousands of dollars, the Rift development kit cost a mere $299 - a direct result of trickle-down innovation spurred by the race to make cheaper and smaller sensors and display panels for smartphones.

What began as a grass-roots experiment to produce a small amount of basic developer kits became an over-night success, crystallizing into one of the most successful Kickstarter projects ever funded. While a consumer Rift has yet to be released, thousands of kits have been sent to game developers. The Rift is widely expected to be released to the public in 2014, highlighting the year with hopeful desire and tantalizing possibility.


Why VR will be successful

Virtual reality is going to change the world.

It will bring about even greater societal change than the internet did in the early 2000s. If the internet was like a grenade, VR is a nuke. While critics may scoff at that notion, they mistake VR for merely a new high-tech toy. They fail to see the bigger picture: the Oculus Rift is more than a product, it is a platform that will come to shape the future of entertainment and human experience. Not many people know it yet, but virtual reality is a new art form with tremendous potential to transform nearly every aspect of life. Like the iPhone did in 2007, the Rift is already spawning an entire ecosystem of developers, hardware companies, and peripherals. The Rift is VR's iPhone moment. Here's why:


Presence

Presence is the magical force that will propel the VR revolution onto the faces of billions, turning what is ostensibly a hunk of plastic and silicon into a dream machine. More than just immersion, presence gives people the illusion of feeling like they're really inside a virtual environment. Communicating what presence feels like to people who haven't tried the Rift before remains one of VR's toughest marketing challenges, but here's an attempt:

You know you're wearing a headset and you know the technology is still early and not perfect yet, but you can't resist the urge to reach out and touch the world that's supposed to be there. Your hands disappointingly meet nothing but empty space. Presence is feeling your stomach drop as you hurtle down a virtual roller coaster track or the legitimate creepiness of staring inches away into a Combine soldier's gas mask in Half Life 2. It's pulling the headset off after a round of Zombies on the Holodeck and genuinely forgetting you were standing in a regular old office the whole time. Presence supersedes immersiveness; it's the number one reason why VR will be so irresistible.


Interactivity

For decades, filmmakers and game developers have told stories confined to the four corners of glowing rectangles. But with virtual reality, the whole world becomes a glorious 360 degree canvas, ripe to be painted upon with an artist's imagination. The freedom to look where you desire is a feature movies and TV shows simply cannot compete with.

Virtual reality pushes interactivity into uncharted territory. Integration with motion controllers like the Razer Hydra and 3D cameras like the Microsoft Kinect allow your entire body to alter the world around you. While today we mash colored buttons on plastic controllers, tomorrow's user interface will require nothing more than simply reaching out with our hands to move and interact with objects. While today we push our avatars forward with a shift of a joystick, walking on treadmills like the Virtuix Omni could become the predominate form of moving through virtual spaces in the future. We may be hard pressed to find more intuitive and interactive interfaces short of direct brain control.


Emotion

Emotional responses become amplified in virtual reality compared to other forms of entertainment. In movies and video games, there will always be some level of disconnect between you and the world when you're separated by a bright LCD panel. But when you put on the Rift, the borders of the screen dissolve and you become part of the game, a member of the world responsible not only for the safety of yourself but for the virtual characters around you. Feeling empathetic towards computer generated people becomes much easier in VR because you view life from the perspective of someone completely different from your real self.

Cosmo Scharf
April 7th, 2014